Carrick Asia

Asian Law Journal 1996 Vol. 3 No. 3

In the first of a series of articles on prominent lawyers who have moved beyond the law, Asian Law Journal speaks to Murray Burton, lawyer and corporate investigator.

Murray Burton Investigates

The concept of a private investigator probably owes more to myth and Hollywood’s portrayal of the pistol packing PI pounding the streets in a battered rain coat than reality. The closest the public is likely to get to a private investigator is to settle down to an offering from the Rockford files. The legal community, however, regularly calls upon the service of investigation and enquiry agencies and Murray Burton is a lawyer who knows better than most what such agencies can offer.

Burton is one of Hong Kong’s long term expats. ‘I came out here doing what us ageing Hong Kong hands all did. I came out for three years and stayed forever’. He says with a smile. This afternoon he is sporting a favourite shirt and an old school tie and is enthusiastic to reminisce. Life in Hong Kong agrees with him and he talks casually about the various career moves that have taken him around the world, in and out of danger and comfortably into middle age.

Burton chose to pursue law despite a natural talent as a linguist. He left school conversant in a number of European languages and took almost two years out to perfect them on the slopes of Switzerland and the resorts of France, Spain and Northern Africa. Having achieved a fair degree of fluency in Spanish, French and German, Burton saw little point in studying languages at university and embarked upon a career in law. Graduating from Edinburgh University in 1970, Burton practised in Scotland as a conveyancing and commercial lawyer for a number of years before moving to Hong Kong in late 1976 to join law firm Johnston Stokes & Master. The move to Asia was, at the time, to fulfill a need for adventure and he did not plan to relocate permanently. Burton remained at Johnston Stokes & Master for some four years.

He cut his investigative teeth in 1980 in the celebrated MacLennan case which stole the limelight in Hong Kong’s legal circles for months in the early 80’s. John MacLennan, a young expatriate police inspector, was found dead in his police flat with five gunshot rounds in his chest and lower abdomen. The death was the source of endless speculation: murder or suicide? There are some who continue to refuse that suicide, the official cause of death, was responsible for his death.

The death came at a time when The Royal Hong Police was actively targeting individuals involved in illegal homosexual activity. In the midst of the witch hunt, MacLennan, a closet homosexual, was found dead in his apartment the day before he was to be publicly exposed and stories abounded about the circumstances surrounding his death.

‘His flat was locked from the inside and the gun was found nearby the body. Despite a wealth of evidence suggesting that he’d committed suicide, the public was unable to accept that he was capable of shooting himself five times’, says Burton with a nonchalance that suggests he has told the tale on numerous occasions. He forcefully rejects any notion of murder or cover-up. ‘A public inquiry was set up to investigate the death and I worked for over a year as the instructing solicitor to the then Commissioner, now Chef Justice, Sir Ti Liang Yang. Many people with fanciful theories on the matter, barely conversant with the facts, have long forgotten the critical evidence and the thorough investigations.’

At the end of the case Burton decided it was time to leave private practice. His decision to leave the secure bosom of the law attracted a considerable amount of comment from his friends and contemporaries. When pressed on his desire to forsake the stability of his life as a respected lawyer for the uncertainty of a career more myth than mainstream, Burton exudes a characteristic self-assurdness. ‘I felt there was something more to life than being behind a desk… I wanted to do something with more of a business focus than just giving legal advice. I wanted the exposure to business. Having said that, I always wanted to retain my contact with the law and my membership of the profession.’ Burton remains a member of the law societies of Hong Kong and Scotland.

He became an independent legal consultant for a Japanese based entrepreneur whose principal product at the time, the Space Invaders computer game, was the forerunner of modern video entertainment. Michael Kogan, a White Russian emigré from Shanghai, became fabulously wealthy as his computer games took the world by storm in the late 70’s and early 80’s. As his fortune and investments enlarged, Burton’s role also developed. ‘I had a tripartite role, primarily as a consultant to the family-controlled Japanese company, Taito Corporation. I also looked after and protected the royalties earned from the video games that were being licensed to the large American companies of the day like Atari. Above all, I became a close, trusted family friend and advised them on family interests.’

‘My job was as Mr. Fixit. I would be called to fly to the likes of Guam or Hawaii, indeed all over the world, to sort out a company or assist in closing it down because it wasn’t making any money.’ This was a role Burton played for around five years, during which time Kogan died. The computer games empire was taken over by Kogan’s eldest son, who, along with Burton, consolidated the business. At the end of the eighties, however, without the backing of his erstwhile principal, Burton felt it was time to move on.

He enjoyed a brief stint with the Bank of Bermuda’s arm in Hong Kong, Bermuda Trust (Far East) Limited, which he knew well from his days as a solicitor with Johnson Stokes & Master. His brief was to expand their private banking practice. ‘Essentially it was a business development role which required me to wear a private banking hat. I wandered round the streets of Taipei and Hong Kong trying to encourage high net worth individuals to part with their money and have them made tax efficient in offshore jurisdictions.’

The move into the field of investigation came at the beginning of 1991 when Burton joined the trailblazers in corporate financial investigations, Kroll Associates. At that time Kroll, who had an office in Hong Kong since 1988, was undergoing a period of change and restructuring. Burton was brought in to assist as a full time consultant. Although his legal background meant that he was sometimes called upon to act as Kroll’s in-house legal counsel, Burton’s responsibilities centred mainly around business development and raising the profile of corporate financial investigation agencies.  ‘They were days, and it is still true to a certain extent, when a lot of individuals and organisations in Asia didn’t know about the industry. They didn’t know that if you had a problem in certain areas, there were companies that could help and who had expertise in getting information.’

Burton also began to play an active operational role, working as a case manager on a number of complex assignments for Kroll in the Far East, notably Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. He spent almost three years at Kroll before joining some of his former collegues at O’Reilly Vernier & Gurka (OVG) earlier this year. In doing so he also renewed his association with Tony Gurka, who had at one time been appointed by the MacLennan Commission to bring in outside investigators.

The move to OVG has completed Burton’s move from the legal profession to operational investigations. Almost 20 years after first setting foot in Hong Kong, he believes he has finally found his true vocation. His present position is to promote, in Asia’s growing markets, one of Hong Kong’s blossoming financial investigation agencies. The OVG operation is split between two offices, with 15 staff in Hong Kong and five in Singapore. Tong Gurka, the founder of Commercial Trademark Services, now part of Pinkertons, heads up the Hong Kong operations, whereas Bill O’Reilly, ex-FBI agent and former Director of Operations at Kroll, heads the office in Singapore.

‘O’Reilly is currently blessed with one of our more testing investigations,’ says Burton. ‘It’s an unusual case for OVG as it falls outside the regular categories of work we undertake. We’re investigating the disappearance of a young British university graduate who was backpacking around Southeast Asia.  He was always regular in reporting home to his parents, but the last call they received was on Boxing Day last year. We ascertained that he crossed the Thai border into Cambodia at a time when the Khmer Rouge were particularly hostile towards anyone who crossed their path.

‘The Khmer Rouge sometimes hold people as hostages for a rainy day. We’re organised leaflet drops over Khmer Rouge territory and have taken the investigation just about as far as we can at the moment in the most difficult of circumstances. Of, the course young man may have fallen foul of one of the many other hazards that remain in that war torn part of the world.’

Burton talks enthusiastically about his new role, a role which he assures is easier than the myths about private investigation suggest. ‘The information is available if you know how to access it. There are hundreds of databases in the world covering almost every subject. The emphasis in Asia is much less on public record availability and much more on human source input, but this is certainly not the case in the United States, where by comparison, there is a huge amount of public record information available.

‘This is an area which is very much low-key and very much word of mouth. ‘The nature of the industry is secretive. Your survival depends upon confidentiality, discretion and the way you go about trying to get information. There’s no glossy handbook on how to be a brilliant investigator. It’s born of experience.’ On the operational side at OVG, investigators tend to be people with law enforcement backgrounds. ‘We’ve got people who worked for the FBI in the States and people who worked for the Royal Hong Police Force – people who, over ten or twenty years, have gained investigative experience, and who know what they should be looking for and what kind of questions they should be asking.’

As a lawyer Burton is better placed than most to recognise the growing importance of lawyers working with investigators and of instructing investigation agencies as early as possible in proceedings.

Burton thinks the future looks bright in Hong Kong. ‘I’ve always been very optimistic about Hong Kong post-1997. In terms of the financial community, I don’t think there’s going to be a great turnaround in the amount of international business that is transacted on the Hong Kong stage.  However, with regard to corporate and financial investigations, it is not entirely clear how acceptable firms like OVG will be to a new regime.’ This is not a point to dwell on. For the ever adaptable Burton, content in his current position, change is a welcome and familiar friend.

HK$9b habit of young

gamblers worries Club

Billions in

illegal bets

placed on

NBA, golf








Philip Glamann


Billions of dollars are being wagered illegally in Hong Kong on American basketball and on golf.


Up to HK$9 billion a year is being bet with illegal bookmakers on these sports, which are gaining increasing exposure in the city, gaming analysts who have investigated the trend say.


Punters are believed to have developed an intererst in these sports while living overseas.


The Jockey Club has alerted the government to the problem of illegal gambling on sports it does not offer.


“The best solution is for one operator channelling the sports,” club CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges said. “It will be beneficial to the community but it is up to the government.


We should be able to offer all forms of sports betting to prevent illegal gambling.” He added: “This was



A bigger issue

Illegal betting on basketball and golf is rising, but the amount, in Hong Kong dollars, wagered illegally each year on soccer games is estimated to be


.......................................... .

general conversation and we didn’t think it was appropriate to press the issue, but we think it will become

more of an issue going forward.



The club’s head of public affairs, June Teng, said it had to combat illegal and offshore bookmakers to keep betting dollars in the community for tax and charitable purposes. Bookmakers were increasingly offering betting on basketball, golf, boxing, tennis and even the Winter Olympics,

she said.  People who have assessed the trend estimate Hongkongers are illegallybetting HK$4 billion to HK$7 billion a year on basketball and HK$1 billion to HK$2 billion on golf. They believe those figures will rise.



While this pales in comparison to the estimated HK$60 billion spent on illegal soccer gambling, it is enough to attract the Jockey Club’s attention.



A gaming analyst said the trend was predictable. “The younger demographic is beginning to get a bit bored watching horses at Happy Valley trundle around,” former solicitor and independent gaming consultant Murray Burton said. “I can understand how the NBA or any other sport would be an attraction, especially for Chinese educated in the US.”


The only legal form of sports gambling was horse racing until soccer gambling was legalised in 2003 to try and curb rampant illegal betting on the game. The Legislative Council would have to approve the legalisation of betting on any other sports, and anti-gambling groups would be bound to object strongly.


For now, the club is the only place where Hongkongers can legally gamble.

But punters can easily place a bet with underground bookies or with gambling websites overseas. Some,such as and betfair365. com, even offer services in traditional Chinese characters – used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.


The sites offer bets not only on basketball and golf, but also baseball, boxing and American football.

Mett Ng, who likes to bet on soccer through the Jockey Club, said some of his friends bet on the NBA.


“It’s getting more popular,” he said. “I know that many people do this. Many people like the NBA in Hong Kong, but you can only bet onit through the websites. Many youth like to play basketball and some of them are involved in betting.”

Other sports, such as baseball or American football, were not as popular.



“The NFL, not many people know the rules,” he said.


Former Hong Kong police detective David Fernyhough, who heads the local office of corporate-risk investigation firm Hill & Associates, said the rise of gambling on the NBA and to a lesser extent golf was not surprising.


The emergence of Chinese stars such as Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian in the NBA, and the frequent games on TV had made the sport more popular, and that would spur gambling on games.


Illegal gambling has been a major problem for the Jockey Club for years.



Illegal bookies offer better odds and spreads, and extend credit, and the club cannot match these incentives.

Chandler sidelined by soccer ruling


     BRITISH bookmaker Victor Chandler, squeezed out of the £2.4bn-a-year football betting market in Hong Kong, may not be allowed back in even though a ban on gambling on soccer is being lifted.

Victor Chandler was forced to close its Hong Kong office in May, just days before the World Cup, when the ruling Executive Council declared online betting, including football, illegal.

The council was today expected to approve football betting, but only under the wing of the powerful Hong Kong Jockey Club, which controls all horse racing in the territory and has an annual betting turnover of HK$80bn.

There will be strict rules to keep out commercial organisations, reflecting the strong opposition to extending betting beyond horse racing and mahjong.

Today Murray Burton, Victor Chandler's representative in Hong Kong, said he welcomed the change of heart but warned that a wide range of exciting bets would need to be offered if illegal gambling were to be stamped out.

Friday, 31 May, 2002, 13:03 GMT 14:03 UK
Hong Kong bans overseas gambling
Hong Kong Jockey Club
The Jockey Club pays taxes on its revenues
A new law banning Hong Kong residents from placing bets with overseas bookmakers came into force on Friday.

Many gambling activities within Hong Kong are already illegal but now anyone caught placing bets offshore or running such activities will also be committing a criminal offence.

The authorities have also vowed to crack down on illegal football gambling.

Permitted gambling activities are limited in Hong Kong to a few exceptions such as horse racing bets and a lottery held twice a week by the Jockey Club.

Online outlawed

The Jockey Club pays taxes on its revenue to the government. Fears that its revenues would be threatened by offshore betting prompted the introduction of the ban.

The new legislation also covers bets placed online.

Anyone caught breaking the new law could face a fine of 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,284) and a three month jail sentence.

Gambling operators based overseas accepting bets from within Hong Kong would also be committing a criminal offence.

World Cup gambling

As the new legislation was introduced, Murray Burton closed down the Hong Kong operations of betting shop Victor Chandler Worldwide.

Mr Burton doesn't feel the new law is the answer to Hong Kong's problems, describing it as "the worst of all possible solutions".

Speaking to the BBC's World Business Report, he said the new law stopped the government from getting much needed revenue it could have collect with a "licensed, regulated and taxed" system.

"This legislation that has been put into place in Hong Kong is the most draconian legislation in this industry I think that is in place in Asia," he said.

The new law comes into force on the opening day of the football World Cup in Seoul, Korea.

Gambling on football matches is popular within Hong Kong and Mr Burton says it is "absurd" to think the new law will stop people betting on the World Cup.